New operations at the Romanian air base show the challenges of fortifying NATO’s eastern flank

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Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly speaks March 7 with Eduart Dodu, deputy commander of Romania’s Mihail Kogalniceanu airbase, where Canada has deployed two large tent-like structures.Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail

A disorderly military operation on the European Union’s eastern borders is being pieced together on soil that bears the unmistakable expression of neglect. Not far from newly arrived Dutch soldiers walking on muddy gravel at Mihail Kogalniceanu, a Romanian air force base near the Black Sea, rotting Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets are parked among the trees.

The base still boasts a bunker built under Nicolae Ceausescu, although dirt has now slipped into the entrances and concrete is peeling off the ceiling. In any case, it offers little protection against modern munitions, such as those used by Russian troops in Ukraine not far from here, in a war that has underscored the need for stronger military defenses in Eastern Europe.

But a plan to build a more modern base will take years, Romanian officials say, even in a location that occupies strategic territory for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

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Countries across Europe have rushed to increase defense budgets and strengthen NATO’s eastern flank, fearing that Moscow’s military success will push its forces to the borders of Romania and other countries. Germany committed to doubling military spending. The Romanian President has called for a 25 percent increase in spending on his armed forces. “It is necessary to fundamentally reconsider the way and the philosophy in which the allied structure on the eastern flank is designed,” Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu said on Monday.

The border with Ukraine is less than 100 kilometers from here. Mihail Kogalniceanu is the closest NATO airbase to Crimea, where Russia has carried out a major military expansion since annexing the peninsula in 2014.

The air base now shares a runway with a civilian airport. The Romanian government, NATO and the US have already committed nearly $3 billion for a major modernization, with plans for a second runway and upgraded military facilities. The money is already secured.

But a construction that “could take five, six years,” Eduart Dodu, the base’s deputy commander, said Monday.

Dutch troops walk through newly constructed barracks at Mihail Kogalniceanu airbase.Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail

The erection of new defenses in NATO’s eastern reaches has become a necessity since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, when Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was active his defense plans, which allow him to “place troops where they are needed”.

Many of them have come to Mihail Kogalniceanu, which is now home to more than 2,000 troops, including French, Italian, German and Dutch – in addition to a large US presence. Italian and German Typhoon jets are stationed here, along with French army vehicles and a sizeable stockpile of US equipment: Blackhawk helicopters, tanks, armored personnel carriers, tankers and Humvees. The US installed fuel tanks and even a new terminal building for incoming troops.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited the base Monday and underscored its importance. He has toured Europe and met with military leaders in Belgium, Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

On Monday, groups of Dutch soldiers in flip-flops walked down a rocky avenue built between soft-sided dormitories. Some stood on wooden pallets to keep the mud out.

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Since 2017, Canadian CF-18 fighter jets have been stationed at Mihail Kogalniceanu for NATO air policing operations five times. Half a dozen jets and around 200 employees are scheduled to return in July. Such assignments usually last four months.

“We are ready to do our part to protect the entire eastern flank and Romania in particular,” Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly said on Monday during her visit to the airbase.

The Canadian military uses two large flexible structures when operating here, similar to hangar-sized McPherson tents. Their flexible roofs have raised fears among the Romanian military that they could collapse in heavy snowfall.

The US also had problems. An apron with parking for several aircraft, which should have been completed last year, remains unfinished. “They poured the concrete and then destroyed it,” Commander Dodu said. “They poured the concrete three times, I think.”

Romania’s underinvestment in its military was a conscious decision. After Mr. Ceausescu was overthrown in 1989, Romania began to divert national funds to other uses. Its military has dwindled from more than 300,000 people to fewer than 60,000 today. Romania joined NATO in 2004 and the European Union in 2007.

Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail

Above: Disused Soviet-era jets stand at the airbase. Above: Concrete was poured for a partially completed apron and ripped away several times, underscoring the difficulty in building up defenses on NATO’s eastern flank.Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail

In the past three decades, “it was so peaceful for so many years that it made no sense for the Romanian government to invest money in a military base,” said Iulian Fota, deputy minister for strategic affairs at Romania’s foreign ministry.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 began to change that calculus, and Romania began opening Mihail Kogalniceanu to foreign forces. The US built fences, a road and a number of buildings. NATO forces, including Canadians, began joint exercises.

“We know what we have at the moment. At the same time, you saw that we are investing a lot of money to improve the situation,” said Mr. Fota.

However, he dismissed concerns about how long it would take for Mihail Kogalniceanu to transform into a more effective military airfield. “They will try to get the job done as quickly as possible,” he said.

Instead, he referred to the foreign troops that have invaded in the past week.

“If you look at the Cold War, you will see that the Americans didn’t have many troops in West Berlin,” he said. “Numbers don’t matter. The message is important.” The military collection, which is already taking shape at the airbase, will soon be joined by other countries, he said.

“The fact that so many Allied troops are coming here within a few weeks is a very strong signal,” he said. “This is the best proof that solidarity works.”

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